When you first asked me what I thought was the “greatest” documentary in film history, I immediately thought of what is popularly considered to be the first feature documentary, Nanook of the North. And while Robert Flaherty’s lead subject remains one of the iconic figures in cinema, and his controversial re-stagings are de rigueur for non-fiction directors these days, my mind went to a doc that still feels like one of the greatest stories ever told: Kon-Tiki (1950).
I’m not sure where I first saw it, probably at my local public library in Central California in the mid-70’s on a 16mm print, but Thor Heyerdahl’s adventure was grander than anything my boyhood brain could have conceived. In a nutshell, for those who tragically have not experienced the film, by piloting a raft across the Pacific, Thor Heyerdahl tries to prove his theory that refugees from the Incan Empire originally populated Polynesia. His mix of anthropology, science and bare-muscle bravado was just intoxicating for a multi-ethnic, science-camp loving, fort-building, nerd. And the idea of an all-male crew setting off shirtless on a hand made raft across the South Pacific held a fascination I could not yet put my finger on… I’ve since figured it out.
Those who will see Ang Lee’s Life of Pi this season, with it’s stunning open ocean scenes, may not realize that a similar voyage (albiet an intentional one, sans tigers) was captured by sailors and crew, on film, in the late 1940’s. No digital effects here. So when the flying fish land on the Kon-Tiki, and the cameras happen to be rolling, the shivers of excitement are all the more visceral. No digital 3D could deliver a bigger thrill. Maybe that’s what is most impactful about this doc, and great docs in general: capturing the feeling of what it must have been like to be there. And actually being there is always more impactful than fantasizing about it.
Rajendra Roy joined the Department of Film at The Museum of Modern Art as Chief Curator in July 2007, leading the museum’s film collection, preservation and exhibition efforts.